Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Machinima: In a Class of Its Own


Call me Sister Mary Elephant this week from the classic Cheech and Chong! If you are like me, you caught those "historical" moments as reruns or now on YouTube. That is not my point! But funny stuff there. Find your own link (LOL, some of it is fairly crude). But I am here as an educator today within a virtual (and some might say fictitious world) to discuss machinima's role in the RL education of our next line of storytellers. Before you run out the door, I want to add that it is never too late to learn. :)

The week, a number of professors and media professionals are scurrying to prepare for Purdue University's Computers and Writing 2010 online and onsite conference. The online conference will be held in Second Life, May 6 through May 13th (see the schedule). Presentation materials for the SL conference will be exhibited beginning tomorrow so that attendees can review them prior to the online conference. It is good to see machinima included on that roster of writing topics!

Storytelling through Machinima

In Second Life, I am presenting with Lowe Runo on the various mechanics and aesthetics of machinima storytelling, and then IRL we discuss the writing opportunities evolving from experiences within virtual environments like Second Life. The photos in this blog are from his guest lecture on machinima storytelling in my SL/RL media course. Writers can test stories and characters in SL, and explore concepts of diversity through gender, race, and ethnicity "avatar" representation. There are various genres of storytelling within machinima, but our focus will be an emphasis on how to construct a culturally rich storyline that taps into real life emotions.

Second Life is a world where residents create and perform through avatar representations. Stories generated can be that of narratives constructed from individual experiences and interactions with others in situations that evolve naturally - a dynamic cast of avatars that interact in various unfolding contexts.

For educators like myself, questions include: How might Second Life help students improve their understanding of the writing process? Good stories boil down to credible plots and characters. Second Life can allow writers to test stories and characters, and explore concepts of diversity through gender, race, and ethnicity. Machinima can be employed for in-world journaling, role-playing, journalistic reporting, as well as the creation of music videos and machinima drama, as a means to help students engage in expressive, relatable storytelling whether in virtual or real worlds. The cost of experimentation is minimal in virtual worlds, where set and avatar construction are on-going features of the game. The "actors" or "storytellers" can, moreover, experience identities and roles outside of their RL/SL selves within the larger Second Life community to understand the characters they portray on the screen.

Machinima is Performance
Any story involves the plot and the performance; without those, the production itself is meaningless. Numerous "machinima" how to courses are appearing in digital media and film programs at universities throughout the world. So how do such educators understand the role of machinima in teaching storytelling?

In December 2009, Michael Nitsche, founder and director of Digital World and Image Group (DWIG) and Associate Director of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech, attempted to define machinima, keeping in mind its historical evolution. He pointed out, "A caveat upfront, nobody who's too busy doing it should be bothered. This might be one of those self-perpetuating problems academics like. It just so happens that I am such a creature..." He challenged the "utilitarian" definitions offered both by the legendary Paul Marino, as well as Hancock & Ingram - a "technique of taking a viewpoint on a virtual world, and recording that, editing it, and showing it to other people as a film" (Nitsche, 2009). He begins by acknowledging the difficulty of defining machinima "based on a technique, which is one reason the term 'anymation' has been used as in parallel to machinima by artists such as Tom Jantol. Likewise, the connection to gaming is shrinking." He adds, "Tying it to a game in general has become equally problematic as special machinima creation packages like Moviestorm and iClone launched without any basis in gaming" (Nitsche, 2009).

Critical concepts to any definition of machinima are "procedurality" and "performance," he argues; "...maintaining a kind of performative control is key for the preservation of machinima’s identity." He explains, "At its core, machinima is part of the same digital procedural media family as video games but it differs from games in the way that this control is weighted." Logically, he concludes, "Machinima is more flexible than games because it tries to do something different. Machinima can switch between modes of what is producing and controlling easier than games can" (Nitsche, 2009). Overall, he perceives machinima as having a "much stronger focus on the cinematic presentation, the 'telling' looks at a different use of procedurality. Where games play with the changes of the action, machinima plays with the changes in the cinematic narration" (Nitsche, 2009). In fact, he states, "Performance of the game, the player, and even the audience can include rules that go beyond the creation of the image itself and instead can affect the action that is displayed" (2009).

As The Virtual World Turns
I concur with Nitsche, but would also argue that Second Life serves as unique storytelling environment, for it affords unpredictability and a greater level of chance interaction among characters than other platforms - it allows people's ideas to collaborate with one another. Machinima makers in SL can collaborate with set designers, or unexpected moments during filming might take a story for a new twist depending on whether the casted avatars are residents of SL (or merely puppets of the producer -you know "alts"). Diversity springs forth through collaboration, and machinima as a social performance can have unique value to the evolution of the story.

Well as for any last words, that is wishful thinking on my part. To me, machinima is best grounded when communicators consider the appropriate means and media to tell their story. Saying all that, machinima, although it is about more than production efficiency, is definitely a wonderful medium for experimentation. So that is likely one of the major attractions of the media form among educators seeking storytelling opportunities. Its very efficiency as a relatively inexpensive medium encourages evolution and experimentation in storytelling.

- Soni

Note: This presentation evolves from my research for a chapter in my book Second Life, Media, and the Other Society (Peter Lang, 2010), which examines, in part, how the interactive nature of the game allows residents to document their experiences through digital storytelling.

Nitsche, Michael. (2009). Video game spaces: Image, play, and structure in 3D Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Nitsche, Michael (2009, December 31). Machinima defined in Free Pixel, accessed April 19, 2010; Nitsche, Michael, & Thomas, Maureen. (2004). Play it again Sam: Film performance, virtual Environments and game engines. In Gavin Carver & Colin Beardon (eds.), New Visions in Performance: The Impact of Digital Technologies (pp. 121-139). Lisse, NL: Swets & Zeitlinger.

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